Sunday, October 11, 2009

Feeling Guilty When Your Bills Are Paid --

...and others' bills are not.

J.D. at the always-interesting Get Rich Slowly has a take on this: feeling guilty about being able to say that his needs are met, and now he can indulge some of his wants. It's not exactly wealth that he's talking about, although he characterizes it that way. It's more about having extra...and knowing that some of your friends and family don't.

Read the post here. And don't miss out on the comments -- they tussle with the issue much more than J.D.'s original post does. The essence of J.D.'s advice: don't spend more than you make.

Does your approach to this issue change if you grew up poor in the first place? I think it does. Being aware of what you didn't have -- and noticing some of the same people in your world still don't have much -- can certainly skew how you feel about what you've accomplished.

My own background comes from a small farm; my dad worked full time at a repair shop on the side. Eventually he became the parts manager there, then part-owner, along with my cousins. Due to some financial shenanigans from one of the cousins, the shop went bankrupt and shut down. (This happened in the early 1980s, not long after the Brick and I were married.) My dad said, though, that this was a hidden blessing -- the farmers who attended the auction refused to bid on equipment they saw Dad bidding on. As a result, he was able to start his own repair business -- make a better living -- and not have to worry about partners. (It took me years, though, to forgive the cousin in question from doing this to my own father. As far as we know, Cousin has never apologized or acknowledged his part in this fiasco.)

Dad was determined that my brother and I would get a better education than he did. (He never got past 8th grade.) Bro and I, thanks to lower income, were eligible for financial help -- but we also both worked through high school and college, and my parents helped out, too. Many of our cousins financially were in the same pot that we were -- most chose not to even try to attend college, but went directly to work.

Some did very well -- some 'okay' -- and some not so well. But in most cases, the ones struggling today are doing so because they blew their money early on bigshot purchases like large tvs and fancy stuff. The ones who paid for things as they went are doing just fine.

Brother and I both got our degrees; his, a B.S.; mine up through a M.A. After working as a salesman for years (and building his own house), Brother started his own business. He then bought two more that produced parts needed for business #1 -- then sold all three. Brother currently still works for the new owner, but he does it on his terms. He could afford a much larger house and a fancy car, but he still lives in the same house he built himself -- and drives a truck.

Our house is larger than his -- but it's also older, and we had to do a lot of work to it. But for years, we lived in student housing, or rented places. It wasn't until our youngest was born that we bought our first house. Our current place is actually our second house, paid for with the profits of home #1. (Which we also renovated considerably.)

Should I feel guilty because the Brick and I learned early on to pay our bills first -- then started saving for the luxuries? For example, We still don't have a big-screen tv, something I know the Brick would love to watch football on. (Cable is a necessity out here because you don't get tv out here otherwise -- the mountains cut us off from nearly all channels.) We drive a nicer Jeep Cherokee...but we also bought it used, and the Brick did a heck of a job bargaining it down to an incredible price. (Sshhh, don't tell the Brick that I've been looking for a big-screen tv on Craigslist; we'll find someone that's moving, or needs a quick sale! )

Same thing has happened for the house we live in now. (Although I wish we could have been able to afford remodeling it right away, rather than piece by piece as we can afford it.) We could have never afforded it right off -- but a substantial down payment from the profits of House #1 (plus scraping to keep paying off the principal, bit by bit), made it possible to live here.

One of our cousins came for a visit this summer, and I could see the pleasure (and a bit of envy) in her eyes as we sat on the patio, looking out toward the mountains. How could I communicate that the house had to be totally rewired, and scrubbed out when we first bought it from Ma and Pa Kettle? (They kept rabbits in the basement. On the carpet. I am not kidding.) The house was on the market for more than a year, and the realtor was so desperate to sell the house that he actually cut his commission to meet our offer. (Ma and Pa were so deep in debt that they refused to budge. For years after, we had people trying to serve us papers, on the theory that we were them.)

We lived with a dirt driveway, yard and cracked concrete for years, until we could afford to pay a friend to pour the driveway, tear out the sidewalk, then re-pour it and the patio. We spent a decade enduring an ugly blue paint job until we could pay for good-quality siding. The patio set was an end-of-the-season clearance steal...but we made do with crappy stuff until we could even afford that.

So when I saw that look in my cousin's eyes...

Well, I looked around, at the tall copper pot full of roses (found at King Soopers for a steal); the dishes (presents, discount and thrift shop); the hot tub (a gift from a friend); and the yard and garden, all painstakingly built up over the years. (Well, the grass still has a ways to go!) I didn't feel guilty about it at all -- only a deep, sure feeling that our hard work over time was starting to pay off. And an even deeper feeling that if we lost it all, it wouldn't matter. Being poor was -- and is -- nothing to fear.


ladybug43 said...

Hmmmm.... I could write SO much here, about our own story (we don't have a BigScreen either, and could well afford it now).

My "wake up" call about frugality came as a young mother, and some acquaintances that I felt a little superior to [for shame!]. Then I found out they were debt free and paid cash for every car they purchased. Though we've never been over spenders, we did have debt at that time. It took us at least 20 more years before we started paying cash for our cars.

Cindy Brick said...

I never thought much about this at first, Ladybug...but being able to pay cash for something you need/want is one of the most freeing feelings in the world. "Owe no man" has a nice ring to it! And it lets you consider other options you would have never dreamed of, if you had bills to pay.
Our daughters are starting to realize how valuable this skill is. The hardest part, though, is waiting -- and saving while you wait.

ladybug43 said...

Yes, for sure. My brother-in-law, a computer programmer (and a good one), worked for a company that went belly up 8 years ago. Not only did they continue to pay off their house, but it's only been in the last year that he's taken a manual labor job just to keep going. The secret? They were debt free, and had savings. The hardest thing for them in the beginning was to stop the spending habit.

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